On Beauty and Sociopaths

bathing-river

As an exercise I’ve decided to think through the connections of two texts I’ve recently read: Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

Kotsko’s book goes through a number of different types of ‘sociopaths’ – the schemer, the climber, and the enforcer – each with their own role in different areas of the television landscape. The sociopath, in television fiction (even pervading the world of ‘reality tv’) undermines social norms or mores through their lack of social consciousness. Kotsko argues that “our social orders are long-term strategies for dealing with each other, tools that are useful in a given time and place with no guarantee that they will last,”* and that the sociopath goes without following these social order for their own (or their families) advantage. The schemer – shown through characters like Homer Simpson of the Simpsons and Eric Cartman of South Park – attempt to go around social norms in order to attain some short sighted goal; the climber – for example Don Draper of Mad Men – attempt to use the system as a means to climb within the system; while the enforcer – Jack Bauer of 24 – circumnavigate the system in order to save their “family” (in Jack’s case the United States as a stand in for family). In any case, these men (and, as Kotsko points out, they are all men) don’t function within the normal social mores in order to accomplish their goal.

As Kotsko suggests in his introduction, people living with sociopathy in real life are nothing like these characters. What is given in the sociopath of television is an idealized sociopath. It is interesting that in each of the cases Kotsko presents, the idealized sociopath abuses their lack of social consciousness in order to obtain some aim. It is their very lack of social consciousness which allows them to succeed. Kotsko suggests that sociopathy can be seen in opposition to awkwardness. That “the sociopath, then, whose lack of social connection makes him or her a master manipulator of social norms” (p. 14). I agree with the first part of the sentence – that the sociopath lacks social connection – but not the second – that this allows them to manipulate social norms.

This brings me to the character of Howard Belsey (On Beauty), a 57 year old art history professor at a university called Wellington in Massachusetts. Howard would seem to be the embodiment of one who lacks social connection, but without the ability to manipulate social norms. Howard is a character who one comes to both hate and sympathize with throughout the novel. By cheating on, and subsequently lying to his wife, Howard is a character deserving of contempt. Yet, one is repeatedly shown that Howard is a character who lacks the world outside himself. He lacks the ability to communicate with his family and friends in a way outside of his academic jargon. As one character tells Howard near the end of the book “…you just need to deal with the fact that you’re not the only person in this world” (p. 390). This lack of understanding is a motif repeated throughout the book, and one begins to sympathize with Howard’s inability to truly communicate with anyone through his lack of social connection.

It is precisely this lack of social connection which leads Howard to failure. He is unable to truly apologize to his wife without some sort of theoretical backing – which always seems to lead to more animosity. Furthermore, his self-centredness lead him to cheat on his wife a second time which results in his wife leaving him near the end of the book. Yet despite all that he has done, Howard insists to his children that this is no more than a temporary separation (p. 434) Despite the pain that he has cost his wife, Howard is unable to truly sympathize with her or her situation which ultimately lead to his failure in his marriage.

We see further evidence of this lack of social connection impeding on Howard in his academic career. At 57 and with 10 years on the job, Howard is stuck in a position of limbo within his university. Despite his age and time as a professor, Howard has failed to attain tenure (p. 438). This failure to attain tenure can, at least to some degree, be based on the way Howard is alienated from many of his colleagues through the lack of social connection and social norms. Even his friends, such as Claire Malcolm, acknowledge the lack of the social in Howard: “It was her old joke that Howard was only human in a theoretical sense.” (p. 225).

But is Howard a sociopath? He does live in what seems to be a perpetual state of awkwardness which Kotsko suggests in in contrast with the sociopath. Howard’s scornful reaction to the Glee club (p. 348), as well as the awkwardness he displays with Victoria(318, 390), suggest a man who is self-centred, yet not unaware of how his actions will impact others before he acts. It is as if Howard wishes to be a part of the normal social discourse, but is incapable of doing so. To make things worse, his self-centredness exacerbates his problems.

The book juxtaposes this strange, awkward sociopath with the more traditional sociopathic model of Monty Kipps, Howard’s academic rival. Kipps is a climber who uses the system to his own advantage, undermining Howard’s liberal movements and arguments with his own conservative agenda. Throughout the book Kipps is shown to have success, while Howard fails. Yet, it is revealed throughout that Kipps, for all his pandering to Christian ethics of family, is just as self-motivated as Howard (if not more so). It is suggested throughout the book that Kipps cares little for his wife, and near the end of the book it is revealed that Kipps, like Howard, is cheating on his wife with a student (p. 418). Yet, despite his sociopath tendencies, Kipps is able to go abuse the social norms in order to get ahead while Howard is left behind. Kipps, in the same way as a character like Don Draper, is able to game the system in order to get ahead within it.

It’s interesting to think about a character like Howard in light of Kotsko’s analysis. Where does Howard fit in? Is he awkward, is he a sociopath, is he somewhere in between? In contrast to Monty Kipps, Howard Belsey does not fit the model of schemer, climber, or enforcer. Yet, he retains the lack of social consciousness which is a component of the sociopathic mold. In some sense, this leaves him as a character in limbo – like the sociopath in his inability to follow and conform to social norms, but also awkward in that inability. It may be the case the Howard functions more like an actual person struggling with being a sociopath, rather than the idealized version, while Howard remains in the role of idealized sociopath.

Quotes from the following sources:

Kotsko, Adam. Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television. Reprint edition. John Hunt Publishing, 2012.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty: A Novel. First Printing edition. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

The Painting:

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Hendrickje Bathing. Painting, 1654. National Gallery, London.

 

 

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